Alan Rickman and Madeleine Stowe explore freedoms both real and imagined.
Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions – I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.
This week’s film is 1991’s Closet Land.
It begins in darkness.
An unnamed woman (Madeleine Stowe) is taken from her home in the middle of the night and brought blindfolded to an austere interrogation room. She hears the gruff guard leave and is greeted by a soft-spoken man (Alan Rickman) who claims to seek only the truth about her anti-government actions. She’s an author of children’s books about talking animals and fantasy worlds, but the government believes they’re actually thinly-veiled support for a resistance movement.
The torture is immediate and varied. Physical violence in the form of blows to the head, toenail removal, and electric shock do a painful and abusive dance with mind-games, threats, and a litany of “alternative facts” designed to keep her off balance. Has she been there a day or a month? Longer? All of it unfolds in this single room as she’s deprived of sleep, food, water, and decency – snatched from bed, she spends the majority of her interrogation in only her nightgown.
He wants her to sign a confession and doesn’t even care if it’s true. She needs to stay true to herself and cares solely about what is right. They’re both in this until the bitter end.
Writer/director Radha Bharadwa has a very clear intent here, and it’s evident long before the film ends with quotes about Amnesty International statistics. Political prisoners are people whose words and thoughts have landed them in custody, and while most people think of this as a problem solely in lands suffering beneath a dictatorship it’s often a reality around the globe. The prevailing theme here is that these oppressive forces can break her body but they cannot break her mind, and it’s a challenge faced by people every day – even here in the land of the free. The film takes place in an unnamed country, and it takes place in every country.
The script hits truths on both sides along the way regarding his motivations and her situation. “Our aim is to rid society of negative influences,” he says. “Our aim justifies the use of certain unorthodox means.” A governing force needs to squash dissent, and as we’ve seen time and again that “need” is often contorted to justify methods and regulations that fly in the face of what a given country stands for and the rights of its citizens. She meanwhile retreats further and further into her imagination, but while it’s an effective tool against the pain of the moment she and the film know it’s a temporary escape from those in power. Resistance until the very end is the only answer.
Befitting of the topic, this is not a fun, casually entertaining movie. Instead we’re carried forward on the momentum of their battle of wills and the power of Rickman and Stowe’s performances. Both do strong work, but it’s Rickman who’s tasked with the more difficult role as the shifty authority whose game involves playing all sides. He’s at his most powerful though during a brief moment where the interrogator finds himself broken by his subject’s will. His respect and awe are visible as is his sadness at what he’s become and what he knows he’s going to do. It’s an affecting reminder that all of us start from the same place of innocence and possibility.
If there’s a fault to Bharadwa’s film it’s that she tries to force unnecessary additional meaning into her already clear tale. The political prisoner aspect offers more than enough fodder for the non-specific allegory at hand, but the film also ties in artists held to account for how some people choose to interpret their work and the idea that we’re all responsible for our fellow citizens’ rights (“First they came for…”). The addition of a sub-thread about sexual assault survivors/assailants serves in some ways to complicate and confuse. The suggestion that this is the specific man who raped her as a child is both overly contrived and damaging to the idea that these two are representatives of a bigger picture. It’s a small part of the film as a whole, but coming towards the end as it does threatens to lessen the overall effect.
Still, these beats work on their own merit and serve to highlight and criticize a patriarchal society. Her sexuality is questioned and critiqued, both through accusations of complicity during the assaults and though a sequence that sees her dolled up, dressed in black underwear, and labeled a “whore.” It’s all an effort to belittle, demoralize, and beat down the individual through an aggressive rule of law, and if nothing else it adds resonance to the kick to the balls she gives him when presented with the chance.
This is a heavy movie, and while it’s far from subtle it’s stage play-like appearance lends itself well to the directness of its message. Production designer Eiko Ishioka (The Fall, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) pairs the stark environment with geometric design and doorways that visibly pinch closed thoughts of escape. Composer Richard Einhorn (with an assist from Philip Glass) follows suit with music that alternately soars and constricts in its power. All of these elements work in unison towards an ending that inspires even as it crushes emotionally.
Closet Land’s biggest fault is that it tries to do too much, but at least it’s trying to do something. Happily, powerfully, it also succeeds.
Read more entries in last year’s The Essentials, and follow along every Monday with Missed Connections — my appreciations of movies that failed to find an audience for one reason or another.